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Face-Off: How Climate Change Could End Outdoor Hockey

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New York Rangers get ready for the NHL Winter Classic game in Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 2012. Warm weather and climate change could soon make outdoor ice hockey a thing of the past

I don’t usually watch hockey — with a job like this, you have to apply sports-watching triage, and Linsanity! — but I was looking forward to the Winter Classic on Jan. 2. The annual event is the only NHL game played outdoors in the cold, the way Gordie Howe intended it, and the 2012 match was set to be held at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, where I’m from (as you can tell from this prescient piece of writing). The hometown Flyers were playing the hated New York Rangers, which promised on-ice fisticuffs and an entertainingly drunken crowd.

But the Winter Classic almost wasn’t. Unusually warm weather in Philadelphia — including patches of rain — left the ice a slushy mess. In the end, NHL officials had to delay the game until the late afternoon to ensure that temperatures would stay cold enough to keep the ice. The same problem happened the year before when the Winter Classic was played in Pittsburgh. Temperatures in Steeltown were in the 50s in the days leading up to the game, which had to be pushed back. And now a new study suggests that as the climate warms, outdoor hockey could become an endangered sport.

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Researchers from McGill University and Concordia University in Canada studied historical weather data in the country going back to the 1950s. Using that information they calculated the beginning and end of what they called the outdoor-skating season (OSS) each year — the months when the temperature was consistently cold enough to support outdoor ice hockey.

Of the 142 weather stations they surveyed, the vast majority reported temperature data that meant the OSS was getting steadily shorter, with warmer winters and less time for outdoor hockey. They found that the biggest decrease in the skating season was occurring in the prairies and southwestern Canada. Extrapolating into the future, they estimated that outdoor hockey soon go extinct in warmer parts of the country like British Columbia and southern Alberta.

The loss of outdoor hockey might not seem like a big deal to Americans — after all, we usually think of hockey as an indoor sport, which is why there are American NHL teams in balmy cities like Phoenix. But outdoor hockey is a Canadian tradition, and nearly every Canadian NHL player has stories about playing outside as a kid. Said study co-author Damon Matthews in a statement:

There is not much akin to skating outdoors, and the creation of natural skating rinks depends on having enough cold winter days. It is hard to imagine a Canada without outdoor hockey, but I really worry that this will be a casualty of our continuing to ignore the climate problem and obstruct international efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, the current Canadian government has made it very clear that it has little interest in participating in a global climate deal, and the country seems to be far more interested in growing its oil-sands industry than in reducing carbon emissions. If anything might make Prime Minister Stephen Harper — a huge puckhead — change his mind on climate policy, hockey might do the trick.

In the meantime, the NHL would be wise to restrict its Winter Classic games to real winter cities — like, say, Whitehorse in the Yukon territories, where the average January temperatures are –17.7°F. Although, in the end, the Philadelphia game turned out fine, with a light dusting of snow through the third period. The only drawback was the ending: Bad Guys 3, Good Guys 2.

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